Haylen heard the notification but didn’t react until it beeped the third or fourth time. It felt as if his sinuses were filled with sponges. As this second day of the surge was coming to an end, he felt marginally better, but holy hell, was he out of it or what…
He rolled over on his side in the bed to flip the text screen open. It was his sister. She lived on Nineteen too, and used to keep some track of her younger brothers
Neither of them were fond of voice chat, and neither of them used more letters than possible when text chatting. It didn’t take long before she replied.
«broken 5er on 04A east, got time?»
‹in 3-4 days, sick now›
Safe to assume it wasn’t a curse out of sympathy, but frustration over not getting help right now, the moment she asked for it. Not that she was depending on his help. She was a Union employee, she had a set pay, no urgent deadlines on her current working place, but she hated leaving things be for long. Just like himself. When it came to practical things at least.
«say when then»
He didn’t bother asking why she couldn’t just call in help from her unit. She usually didn’t ask him if she didn’t need his help specifically, and she would let him know in the most hostile way. That she was annoyed he couldn’t drop everything and come to her rescue immediately wasn’t his problem, and he wasn’t going to let her make it his.
Haylen muted notifications completely and sank back on the pillow.
– – –
Four days later he was finally back on his feet, and left his small rental apartment to catch the train to the M04A outpost, only stopping to buy a bottle of Rock Viper Brew first. It was a strong, rather rough and bitter alcoholic beverage that was infamous for the actual viper venom that was used to chemically affect the rock pine cone based distillate and give it that certain taste that nineteeners loved, and the rest of the system hated.
The M04A was the junction of the mining district named M04, located an hour’s train trip away from Nineteen Main. Among miners, the outpost went by the name Euphoria, because of its resemblance with how 04A was pronounced, and the fact that there was nothing about that outpost to be euphoric about whatsoever.
Most of Nineteen Main was built inside the mountain. It was a city made to last, and to provide highest possible safety and comfort to the lowest cost. It had the mountain itself as a protective shield against grinding sand and scorching sun, and with clever solutions to ventilation and leading in the necessary sunlight, it had become a place where people could live and not only survive.
The outposts, however, needed to be easily removed when the mining ceased. And since the mines weren’t allowed to exceed a certain size, a district rarely lasted longer than a decade or two. Euphoria consisted completely of modules in the open, surrounded by a protection dome; basically the same kind of force field that Haylen’s amps produced, only in a much larger scale.
The train stopped, and Haylen blinked his eyes open, took a deep breath and stretched his back out. He had fallen asleep, as always. He was lucky Euphoria was at the end station, right… He stepped through the gates, crossed the platform and went to the exit.
The warm air and bright light outside stood in stark contrast to the more conditioned environment in the train cars and station building. Even with the dome, Euphoria’s grey buildings were sunbleached, and the trees and plants were wilting. In the distance, the enormous terraformer construct stretched its angular spire to the deep blue sky, the silhouette quivering in the hot air.
Luka was waiting outside for him. As most other workers who had their homes near the mining sites themselves, she had a two-seat loading vehicle at her disposal. It was called a sandworm, even if it didn’t look much like a worm at all. It was a sturdy, open terrain vehicle on six wheels that required a license and a minimum age of 15 to drive. Luka had been driving sandworms since she was able to steer it, and Haylen still didn’t know if she ever got a proper license.
She was two years older than himself, and had a whole different career. She had been repairing and scrapping mining equipment with their uncle since she was old enough to follow him around. If it was the lonely work that had hardened her, or if the work suited her because she was hardened from start, was hard to tell. Either way, where most people found Haylen harsh and insensible, they would soon reevaluate once they met Luka.
She grunted some kind of greeting and hauled up a helmet and a protection vest for him, and eventually he sat down behind her on the sandworm, and they were off. The bumpy road didn’t make the sandworm any more comfortable, but at least it woke him up completely.
Luka’s small module house, where their uncle, Val, had lived too until last year, was the only one left up here. The rest of them had been moved to M11, the currently largest mining district. The protection dome was gone too. The foundations for the generators were still there, surrounding the former worker camp as silent concrete guardians. Inside the large circle of non-existent generators, the outlines of the house modules and traces of the gardens that had grown around them could still be seen as sunbaked grids on the ground.
Of Val’s neatly planned and well kept garden with vegetables, fruits and flowers in ingenious constellations, there was nothing but a couple of scraggy berry bushes with long thorns left. Luka wasn’t one to fuss with plants in the first place; with the dome gone, even Val would have struggled to keep anything alive out here.
People used to say that there was only one thing Val cared for more in this world than engines, and that was his garden. The kids of his brother had only been on third place. Haylen, Luka and Kylan used to claim it was the opposite; engines first, garden second.
Luka didn’t stop at the housing area though, but went straight to the garage that was located east of it, outside the dome. She parked outside and they went into the sweep.
The engines used on Nineteen were made to endure sand, gravel, dust and mud of any grain size in every combination, but to keep them in condition, the garages needed to be kept as clean as possible. Like most open air buildings and houses, the garage had a “sweep”, a room where you brushed or vacuumed, usually both, off all the dust and sand from your clothes and shoes before continuing inside.
The garage looked as it usually did, a large hall, workbenches and tool shelves on the sides, several hoists, two pits, tools and devices and crates everywhere. There were a few taken apart vehicles in here, some cylinder blocks in various states butchering, and one of the huge drill engines that were used to make the first surface break when starting a new mine. To the inexperienced eye, it was mild chaos, but Haylen could tell that Luka still didn’t leave anything out that she wasn’t using, and there was no litter to be found.
Luka gathered the necessary tools for vehicle repairs, putting them into a bag, then motioned Haylen to follow into the changing room. Luka headed straight for a large locker at the wall, pointing at a box on a bench.
“Mealbars if you be hungry.”
He wasn’t really, but took one anyway. It usually took him a few days after a kryvat surge to start eating properly again, so it was good to be reminded. There was also the old soldier habits kicking in. Eat when you can, accept what you’re offered.
“You be de same size still?” She opened the locker and checked the boxes stored within.
“Yeah.” Haylen wasn’t sure what that “still” was in comparison with, but there had been no remarkable changes regarding his bodyshape the last five years anyway.
“You be lucky Val’s gear still be here den, you high heel crossbreeds…” She continued muttering something while she dug out the protective gear for him.
As most areas on Nineteen, M04 East and the way there, was a dangerous place for a human. Except for the scale bears that mostly resided down on the plains but used to hunt near the rocky foot of the mountain, there were smaller but even more vicious lizards higher up, and when you got up on the real altitudes you’d find – or rather be found by – scale eagles, predator birds big enough to lift off with prey up to fifty kilograms. As the scale bears, they were covered in what was closest described as scales, even if they were longer and more fringed on the wings of the eagles.
The most dangerous creatures though were the scavengers. Human scavengers.
That was why even the mechanics at M04 used armor and helmets when they were out scrapping or repairing. It wasn’t as sophisticated and complete as the sets the Task Force soldiers used on missions, but it saved a few lives every year.
Jacket and trousers had composite chainmail under the outer layer of wind- and water resistant fabric, that prevented saw blades as well as beaks, claws or fangs to tear your flesh apart. The vest with its high collar was bulletproof and kept your vital organs and throat safe. Armguards so you were able to fend off scale bears without risking your arms to be bit off. Bulletproof helmets, light and ventilated enough to let you deal with the sun and the heat, but firm enough to save you from a concussion if you fell on the ground, or if a piece of rock or a spanner fell on you.
After they geared up, Luka unlocked a safe and took out her weapon, plus one for Haylen. Stun weapons was part of the standard equipment as well – nothing lethal, since they weren’t allowed to kill the wild life without written permission. Not the human criminals either, for that matter.
There was one more reason, one that wasn’t mentioned as much, and that was the risk of shootings. The Union rather lost one or two citizens a year to animal attacks or scavenger assaults, than double digits to derailed workers going on killing sprees in one of the worker camps or at the outposts.
The Fiver was a transportation vehicle model the size of a medium troop transporter, made for towing mobile devices and engines like drills, hoists and generators, or cargo trailers or even other vehicles. All you needed was the right type of connection on the thing you wanted to tow away. At least that was the recommendation; neither Val nor Luka were strangers to extra chains, wires and duct tape, if the situation so demanded.
This one had stopped working on its way back to the mine during the final evacuation. There were a couple of others in use at the time, so Luka had been able to move all the mining engines back anyway. But this particular specimen still had several years of duty ahead of it, and needed to be fixed and taken back to the outpost within reasonable time.
Haylen had been paying attention to their surroundings on their way up with the sandworm, and now as he stepped off, he unholstered his weapon and scanned the location for possible threats. It was a rather exposed location. He couldn’t imagine that even Luka, who in general hated other people’s company, would want to work alone out here unless she had to.
Luka had a short look around too, her weapon still holstered though, then she looked him over and snorted.
“Dey kicked you back into shape quickly, eh.”
He looked at her as she hauled the toolbox up, holstering his weapon.
“Was I ever out of it?”
He followed her to the Fiver, regretting the snap back. Maybe she had meant it as a compliment. Not likely, sure, but maybe he shouldn’t assume she was being mean all the time.
“Last time I saw you, you be a chainwreck.”
Or maybe he should.
Not that she was wrong. Then again, it had been during one of the worst times he had ever had in Praesidia, for several reasons.
“Dat was ages ago”, he pointed out with a glance up at an eagle circling in the distance.
“Oh right”, she said with pretended surprise, “it was. Too long ago, eh.” Always with the accusations.
“Not long enough, right…”
“Hope you still love machines more dan your sis”, she said as she eyed the Fiver over, unclear if she meant his love for her, or her love for machines.
She opened the door to the cabin and climbed up.
“I goin’ open de hood for you. De wires be intact, fuel lines, chains an’ laces, still it won’ ignite, an’ I can’ hear what be wrong from here.”
Haylen nodded and waited for the hood to open with a clank and a low hum, then climbed up on the ledge around the engine compartment, checking that the hood had locked properly.
Like Luka, he had spent a great deal of his childhood helping their uncle in the garages of many a mining district, putting together dismantled machines, repairing broken ones, cleaning and greasing up working ones, learning the craft by doing. Kylan was the digital crafter and could spend hours searching for bugs, rewrite code and create his own programs for the computer parts of the machines.
Haylen had learned some of that too. In either area, his siblings outmatched him, but he still knew enough to easily manage this job if he had wanted it.
During his basic military education, he had learned how to repair and maintain a lot of engines used by the Armed Forces and later the Tyrian Tanks. Essentially, they were all the same, the Fiver engine no exception. He located the cylinders; the Fiver ran on liquid fuel, not electric batteries or power cells.
In the main city, most vehicles for personal use or transports ran on batteries. The heavier machinery, as well as the protection domes, was powered by the same kind of power cells as spaceships. Electricity for the batteries was produced locally, but the power cells were made in a whole other system, and thus the only types that were shipped here were the larger ones.
Household batteries lasted long, but the mining industry couldn’t rely on batteries for their engines. The electric power supply for charging them was unreliable out here in the mining districts. These areas of Nineteen were windy alright, but during the common storms the windmills had to be shut down or they would break.
Instead, fuel made of biowaste, algae and plant oil, among other things, was used. This fuel was usually of high quality, but some batches were less kind on the engines. Val had taught them how to tell if the fuel was good or bad by trying some on your tongue.
The common conception of nineteeners eating engine greaseon occasion wasn’t only sprung from this habit among workers though; the grease for industrial use that was extracted and refined from the same raw material as the fuel wasn’t exactly tasty, but organic, and possible to survive on it if you absolutely had to.
To be honest, it was actually not that bad if you added some salt and chives.
“Ready?” Luka called from the cabin, and he waved clearance at her.
The starter engine whirred as it should, but as Luka had said, it didn’t ignite properly. There was a faint, indistinct sound somewhere, and Haylen turned his head to try and locate it. The engine shut off.
He leaned back, giving Luka another go-wave, did a quick scan of their surroundings, before focusing on the weird sound again.
There. An unsteady ticking that he was familiar with, even if he hadn’t encountered it that many times before. He signed at Luka to stop. She got out and stepped up beside him.
“Pretty sure it be de feeder”, he said, pointing at it even if he didn’t have to.
“De feeders be tight enough, told you I checked dose”, she said dismissively, but with a frown of insecurity.
“De base joints too?” He looked at her.
She scowled. “Inside de block? No, why you t’ink I brought YOU here, eh? Can’t open dat slab of junk on my own, can I?”
“So now you goin’ mad wit’ me for helpin’. Awesome…” He checked the cliffs to his left again, but whatever it was he might have seen a moment earlier, it was gone now.
“Not for you helpin’, but for givin’ me dat brattitude.”
Haylen lifted his chin up and looked at her. Out of nowhere, she started to snicker.
“What?” he asked, puzzled and not amused by it.
“You mad now, li’l bro?”
He looked back at the engine. “Can’ let you have all de fun, eh.”
“A’ight, let’s take dis beauty apart den.”
– – –
It took them four hours, five fingercuts and plethora of curses to fix the base joints and have the feeder run smoothly again. It was a critical part, so naturally it was well embedded in several casings. It should probably have been done in a cleaner environment, but that obviously wasn’t an option. The whole thing should get a full-service before being relocated to M11 anyway.
When the engine finally started, Luka let out a triumphant “Hah!” that Haylen could hear even here at the engine compartment. He stepped down from the ledge, and Luka leaned out from the cabin as the hood closed, holding out the key for the sandworm at him.
“I ent got a license, you know'”, he said, taking it nevertheless.
“An’ who goin’ stop you?” she asked, gesturing at the wasteland around them. “Dey trust you wit’ weapons an’ implants made for killin’ people, pretty sure dey can trust you wit’ a fuckin’ sandworm, eh.”
There was no point in trying to catch the last train back to the city, so he accepted Luka’s offer to stay overnight. After dinner they sat down outside at the fireplace she had made of an old concrete tray from the mine. When the force field dome was up, noone was allowed to light fires inside it, because of safety regulations. Now, there was probably some restrictions regarding wildfire, but Haylen didn’t even comment this time.
It was nice to just sit there in the cool of dusk, silently, watching the fire, the two moons of Nineteen, and the stars on the sky. None of them felt obliged to talk; even if there probably were things they should talk about, this wasn’t the time.
It was, however, time for rock viper brew. When Haylen handed the bottle over to Luka with a “Congrats to anot’er year”, she first looked at him with narrowed eyes.
“You remember my birt’day? But not dat I don’ celebrate’em?” she said as she took the bottle.
“Yeah, I know you don’. An’ still you whine like a roller chain if we forget, eh.”
He dodged her attempt to smack him in the head with her palm with a smirk, then held the cups so she could fill them with the green-tinted booze.
Luka raised her cup, and couldn’t stop a genuinely warm smile spread on her lips. “Wit’ us or wit’out us…”
“…difference be Nineteen”. Haylen raised his cup too and they drank to Luka’s success in surviving another year.